Orca society

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I’ve got a lot of respect for orcas (sometimes called killer whales): they’re intelligent, showing an ability to learn, solve problems, and teaching learned behaviour; they have a complex and stable communication system; and they’ve been observed exhibiting playful behaviour (as in this report by a scientist who tossed a snowball at one who then proceeded to bat a volleyball-sized chunk of ice around for 5 minutes).

They also have a highly complex social structure that is only matched by elephants and higher primates (including humans). That social structure is incredible: the basic unit is the matriline, which consists of one matriarch and her descendants. Pods consist of one to four closely related matrilines, while clans consist of pods with similar dialects and common but older maternal heritage. Finally, there is the community, which is a set of clans that regularly commingle. All of these levels get together at different frequencies throughout the year, giving young orcas a strong social support and a definite idea of exactly where they fit in the global social network.

The human analogy would be a great-grandmother and all her descendants; an extended family which includes that great-grandmother’s sisters and their descendents; a larger extended family which includes all descendents of one or more generations of that great-grandmother’s ancestors; and a huge extended family which includes the families of in-laws and other social groupings.

Unlike humans, though, orcas stay with their mother all their lives, and are only away from other members of their matriline for minutes at a time. They’re also highly social, and need a lot of social interaction, which is why it’s so vital to try to return orphaned orcas to their mother, if possible, or at least their matriline or pod: otherwise the orphan will try to interact with boats and humans, which can often have tragic consequences.

Attempting to re-unite an orphan with their pod is very tricky, and sometimes fails: Keiko, the orca star of the movie “Free Willy“, was eventually taken back to his original home in Norway, but failed to be accepted by his pod. And while life in the wild is far superior to life in a tank, these very gregarious creatures need social contact desperately.

One attempt did succeed: the young orca nicknamed Springer was successfully re-united with her pod, and has remained with them for years (and now has had at least one calf of her own).

Sadly, they get a lot of bad press, possibly because they’re such efficient predators, and possibly because of the occasional death caused by orca in captivity. Captivity for an orca is incredibly cruel, because they need constant social contact and because orcas in the wild routinely swim hundreds of miles per day: being taken from their mothers (those who capture them choose the youngest and smallest), held in a pool with no others of their species, and given scarcely more than a few times their own body length to swim in is similar to a human being taken as a young child and raised in solitary confinement with no sound, little light, and no human interaction.

So it’s no wonder that they sometimes get so stressed that they lash out and kill a human. This happened with Tilikum, who has been involved in three deaths, and who is the subject of a recently released documentary. It’s also not surprising that they get depressed and succumb to a variety of stress-related illnesses, and often die much earlier than they otherwise would.

So the next time you see one of these creatures imprisoned in a tiny tank, forced to perform tricks for an uncaring audience, imagine how you would feel in the same situation. Then consider doing something: sign a petition, write a letter, or whatever you can.

[Feature image: Orca pod, southern residents. The curved dorsal fin is typical of southern resident females. Image in public domain, from US NOAA.]


  1. I actually watched Blackfish just last week, it’s so sad that these animals are kept in captivity just for peoples amusement. it’s even more distressing watching them being taken as calves from the wild.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Sam. And I confess I’m reluctant to watch Blackfish, because I feel pretty strongly about these issues, and I don’t think I could bear seeing those poor creatures trapped and forced to perform just for entertainment. It’s quite inhuman, especially since they’re intelligent creatures, but then our record with other humans isn’t that great, so it’s no real surprise that we can’t stretch to treating intelligent non-humans with some consideration.

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